Grant Making By Conversation?

In the few months I’ve been at Peery, I’ve been meeting with community leaders throughout East Palo Alto. Particularly, I have learned a lot from the hard-working principals of Ravenswood City School District (RCSD). Given my own experience as a site administrator in Ravenswood, coupled with my recent conversations, I know that each of them wishes they could clone...

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Turning the tables (just a little)

We’re pulling the trigger on creating an app/platform that will enable us to get rolling feedback and ratings on our performance, from our grantees. Advocate Creative will be building us a platform that is simple to use, quick to complete and 100% anonymous. Our hope is once we have it in place our grantees (and others) can rate us on 3 characteristics on a rolling basis—as often as they...

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We grew!

Last month we brought on a new team member, Avani Patel (pronounced Av-ni). Avani is our Local Portfolio Director and will be building our work in East Palo Alto focused on educational outcomes.

Here’s some of what we’re excited about in having Avani as part of our team: - She came directly from the Ravenswood City School District, where her previous position...

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Grantees as Customers: Four ways funders can serve and empower grantees

At the Peery Foundation, we think of grantees as our customers and act accordingly. We’re not investing enough resources on our own to solve social issues at a systemic level, so we try to focus on our core function: to invest in social entrepreneurs and leading organizations. This means we leave the big, hairy problem-solving to grantees and focus on how to create a funding environment that better enables their success...

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Yelp for Foundations

By Jessamyn Lau

The ‘Yelp’ for non-profits, GreatNonprofits, provides an opportunity for people to review non-profit organisations (full disclosure: the PF has provided funding for GreatNonprofits in the past). On anyone can share their experiences and interactions with an organisation -highlighting those who provide great services and occasionally those that don’t do such a great job. Greatnonprofits’ mission is to inspire and inform donors and volunteers, gather stories that demonstrate the work of great non-profits, and promote excellence through transparency and feedback.

What if there were a A mechanism for grantees to review their experiences and interactions with a foundation. Somewhere to inform grant seekers of what kind of interaction they can expect. A repository for great stories of grantee-funder partnership. And somewhere to promote excellence through transparency and feedback. This is not a new idea, but one that has not come to fruition yet.

As people have discussed the potential of this I’ve heard concern about whether non-profits would actually participate or give truly frank feedback as they would never want to damage a funding relationship, or their reputation with other funders -an understandable and real concern. But what if the feedback could range in its level of detail? At the very least a non-profit could give an overall rating out of 5 stars for a foundation, then if they wanted to they could give ratings out of 5 for the foundation on various general categories, and then finally have the option to go in to detail by writing an actual review -all anonymously. The general categories could be things that cut across types and sizes of foundations, like ‘clarity’, or ‘respect’.

What other categories would be telling, yet general enough to apply to all funding interactions? Comment or email me (jessamynATpeeryfoundationDOTorg) with your suggestions. We’ll pass them on should this idea get traction any time soon!

10 Nuggets of Wisdom for SE's (and the rest of us)

By Jessamyn Lau

From the Draper Richards Kaplan retreat, last week:

- Fire faster: Personnel problems tend to age more like milk than wine. - Exercise: This is non-negotiable if you are in this for the long run. - Decisions don’t have to take a long time if you’ve got the right people making them. - People do not describe themselves as ‘in poverty’. - Appreciate your critics: Grit makes polish. - The key to confidence is humility. - Reject all excuses: Trying really hard does not equal results. Do not confine your staff to mediocrity. - Your standard is exactly what you want to say but do nothing about. - Only the schizophrenic survive: The militantly optimistic, and constantly petrified. - You can’t do it alone: Isolation is one of your biggest dangers.

Bespoke Learning

By Jessamyn Lau

You’ve heard a little about my musings on SE education and its shortcomings. It’s time to put a stake in the ground and offer some concrete improvements.

What if a social innovation class were truly about outcomes above outputs? And not about grades or how many people launch ventures? What if it were focused on individualised answers? And each student developed a personal plan to become equipped with the right knowledge and experiences to tackle big problems? What if each person learned and came away with something entirely different? What if the course you wish were around when you were at university was real? The one that helps you figure out how to live your life of purpose?

We think we’re close. We’re designing a class that will be taught to a pilot group of students in August. The curriculum is still in its nascency, but it’s already different from what’s out there. Most classes are tailored to the core group of individuals who know they want to go out and start something. This class will be for the broader group of people who know they are serious about using their career–or an aspect of their professional skills–to contribute to the social sector in a variety of ways: part time or full time, volunteering, working or donating.

In brief, there are three parts: - Overview of the full spectrum of social innovation, - The three biggest pitfalls for social innovators, - Putting the pieces together and developing your path to becoming an effective social innovator.

If you’re interested in participating in an online version of this class then email me, jessamynATpeeryfoundationDOTorg, and I’ll let you know if/when we’re able to offer it publicly.

The Unimpressed

by Jessamyn Lau

Today I received feedback on an event I was involved in organising and was emcee for last month. This is only the second year this event has been held and the first time I’ve emceed anything, so I was very personally invested and anxious that it was a success.

The feedback fell in to 3 camps:

- Cheerleaders (majority), who had a great time at the event and gave us good/great/brilliant reviews across the board, - Supportive critics (minority), who obviously thought the event was a success but a portion of their feedback was critical, very valid, and useful to learn from, - And, the unimpressed (anomalies), who gave feedback that was negative.

Of course my attention went straight to to two negative reviews… One attendee rated the event as poor, and another provided feedback that my emceeing was ‘weird’.  I’m not entirely sure what she meant by ‘weird’, or why the event was ‘poor’ to the other guy, but my initial reaction was, ‘you’re both wrong, everyone else thought it was great!’. I wanted to find out who they were to ask them why and what we did wrong. Maybe they misunderstood our intentions and goals of the event. I wanted to know why they didn’t think we were good/great/brilliant, like the others.

Their opinions were totally valid and their conclusions reflected their experience of the event. From where he was sitting the event did not meet his expectations, and from her perspective I was weird. Could I/we have done anything to change them? Possibly. After reading them a couple of times, I decided to put aside the negative reviews entirely.

I think this is an interesting issue for anyone seeking to gain favour/support/approval. There will always be people who don’t get it or don’t agree with you, or simply don’t like what you’re doing. This is okay. Everyone has their own unique perception and comes at life with their own biases and expectations.

I’m choosing to ignore these two reviews for the event. I think it’s often healthy for social entrepreneurs and non profit leaders to do the same. Hopefully the feedback is not as ambiguous as ‘you’re weird’, but not every funder/supporter/partner is going to jump on your bandwagon. When the PF does not jump on their band wagon, I’ve seen many SE’s handle this issue with grace. It is impressive.

Note the unimpressed, and then focus on your cheerleaders and especially your supportive critics. This is where it makes sense to spend time, energy and resources.

If at first you don't succeed...

By Jessamyn Lau

We shut down our web form last month. This was the page on our website where anyone could go to briefly tell us about their people, idea and impact. When we set it up it seemed like a great idea, where we felt like we could be entirely approachable, not ask for detailed proposals, and able to learn about new organisations that we would be a good funding fit for.

During the past year we’ve had about 100 organisations go to the page to tell us about their work. We’ve learned about many interesting and important models. However, we found we weren’t a good fit for any of them. We were spending lots of short periods of time figuring that out and then responding to people. They added up to a significant amount of time each week. And, even though we didn’t ask for much information from each org, each org still invested time in telling us their stories -with no significant results for them or us. It didn’t work.

As we talked about this we realised this time would be better spent going out and finding orgs that we do fit with, through channels that we *know* yield results. This method feels better too. We love technology and the way it connects people, but having conversations with real people, along with all the depth and dimension that comes with that, works better for us as we are very trust/relationship based in our approach. We know that our best matches come through referrals. Referrals from those who know us well and know an org well -enough to see a strong potential and mutual fit.

So, we’ve taken down our web form. And the time we were spending on fielding, researching and responding to web leads we are now spending on deliberately building relationships with those around us who can make recommendations to us (a lot of the time this is other funders). We’re not trying to be unapproachable or close our doors to new ideas and organisations. We just know that our ratio of time spent to fits found will improve by focusing our efforts on things that we know work. We’re going back to more of our ‘beating the pavement’ approach.

I’d love to hear from practitioners and funders on this. Practitioners, what’s your take on this? Have you seen other effective ways of funders remaining open to new conversations? Funders how have you navigated this issue? Did you come to different conclusions?

A Maturing Moment

By Jessamyn Lau

In Summer of 2008 I was one of Ashoka U’s first interns. At that time Ashoka U was basically a bunch of half formed concepts and ideas on Post It notes on an Ashoka office wall in Rosslyn. Over the last 4 years I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ashoka U develop in to a thriving network of university campuses, each actively and strategically building social entrepreneurship on their campus. Collectively the network is pushing the current limitations of SE experiential learning, curriculum and research development, and they come together once a year to share all the insights and lessons they learn in doing so. The annual Ashoka U ‘Exchange’ was last weekend. Representatives from 100 campuses (inc. Stanford, Marquette, USD, Harvard, Thunderbird, BYU, Brown, NYU, to name just a few) met at ASU in Tempe, AZ for two days of deep discussion on the very niche subject of social entrepreneurship and higher education.

Despite being at least loosely connected to Ashoka U since its inception, I’m still surprised by the order of magnitude that the gathering grows by each year. This time around representation from several of the attending campuses included university presidents, provosts and deans. And in addition to faculty, admin, students and social entrepreneurs, there was representation from the US Dept of Education, Innosight, and IDEO. The community is flourishing. People are paying attention to what’s being shared at the Ashoka U Exchange and want to be part of the dialogue.

Coming from the even more niche position of working for a foundation funding and building a SE program, I liked what I began to see in terms of practical information sharing. There were other individuals there in very similar positions to me, as well as those who hold similar perspectives on how SE education should and could work in the future -normally finding those people would be akin to a needle in a haystack situation. I’d love to see the Exchange facilitate truly efficient knowledge sharing. This is a problem most conference models find challenging.

One of the most marvelous moments of the weekend went unnoticed by almost everyone. I saw a young student coyly approach one of the social entrepreneurs who had presented at the TEDx the evening before. She had noticed a quiet moment when he wasn’t engaged in discussion and looked approachable. I overheard pieces of the conversation as she complimented his TEDx talk, expressed admiration for his work, asked a couple of questions and asked to share information to get in contact later on. The beauty of this interchange was that it was incredibly real and important to her at that moment. It was clear she had just chosen herself a new, and carefully selected, role model. Her new role model was excited enough about her education and potential as a social innovator to respond warmly and genuinely. I have no doubt that that moment is one that will shape her future, because I’ve had one or two just like it that shaped mine.

In all honestly, in past years the Ashoka U Exchange has been something that was a ‘nice to attend’ rather than a ‘must attend’. After this year it’s going to be one of the very few conferences I will put on my 2013 calendar as soon as they announce the Exchange dates. I’m going back next year for the practical knowledge sharing and genuine relationship building it is beginning to effectively provide for those involved in this niche but growing arena. However, a core reason I will be attending again is I know wonderfully important inflection points of all sizes will be created; points which strengthen our collective belief and ability to create and support social innovators of the future.

Someone Else Implementing a Brilliant Idea -Part 2

By Jessamyn Lau

Here’s the latest update from our friends implementing a self-directed reporting process. See previous blog posts here, and here.

“We put together a quarterly report on our work in Haiti for Q2, just as we’d done for Q1. But this time we also put together a Keynote presentation and scheduled a Webex call so that people could hear us talk about the work and expand upon it in ways that a powerpoint can’t do on its own. We all congratulated ourselves on a job well done - it was concise, it was informative, it was entertaining - and sent out a copy of the presentation. We just regretted not having recorded the audio version but figured we could do that the next time.

Of course… it turns out we only had a handful of people who dialed in to the call/presentation, in fact I think we had more internal staffers on it than outside participants. Ultimately, given everyone’s busy travel schedules and the fact that getting everyone in one room at once represented a considerable (human) investment on our part, we decided that for the next update - Q3, out next week - we will just be sending out a PDF version of the original-style document. So maybe simpler was better.

We’re not averse to doing another presentation, we just want to make sure it was worth our while. Worth anyone’s while, really. And if we’d gotten a check in the mail for some general operating support as a result of someone’s total confidence in us, we might have changed our minds again! But at present, I think that’s all that we, at our limited capacity, are able to do.”

Interesting. It’s still early days for this org, but it seems that the value of one reporting system is not as cut and dry as it might initially look. One of the reasons I thought this concept, of one report and one reporting call, made sense was that relationships could be built amongst the funders of an organisation.

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a little about this when I’ve been on conference calls. Interaction and audience participation is really hard to cultivate in a group conf call setting. And that’s when people do in fact remember to dial in to the call. Has anyone cracked this puzzle? Are there specific things that can be done to ensure people 1) value the call enough to be sure they will dial in, and 2) have the right set up for meaningful and productive discussion? Or do you still end up following up personally with everyone after the call?

As always, comments and ideas are welcome.

Dream Funder

By Jessamyn Lau 


For a few months we were pretty sure we were giving up on our blog. We didn’t think the time put in to writing posts produced enough value or usefulness. However, after a few conversations at the Opportunity Collaboration last month we’ve decided to get back on the wagon.

At the Opportunity Collaboration I led a dinner discussion on what makes an ‘ideal funder’. As you might imagine, we had lots of eager participants all ready to contribute to painting a picture of a great funder. There were grant seekers, grant makers, and philanthropy consultants at the table, drawing flowcharts, cartoons and writing lists. The discussion was broad and extensive (see word cloud above), but boiled down to 4 main points. So here, in the words of a group of thoughtful Opp Collab delegates are the top 4 characteristics of an ideal funding relationship:

- Trust - Transparency - Thoughtful flexibility - Partnership

I’d love to hear specific stories and instances of funders demonstrating these characteristics. How does a funder demonstrate they trust you? In what way do you want funders to be transparent? Can you share examples of funders being thoughtfully flexible? What does a partnership with a funder look like?

Concrete examples will help us and other funders take list of nice, but abstract, words and figure out if and how we can put them in to action. This is about sharing best practices, not recognising specific people or organisations, so please keep your description general (no program officer/funder names).

Thanks, in advance of taking the time to type.

Confessions of a Program Leader

By Jessamyn Lau

Earlier this month Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation hypothetically asked,what if foundation heads and program officers got fired for lack of impact? It was an interesting question to ask and a provocative way to think about keeping ourselves accountable to what should be our ultimate goal: impact. Though, obviously, easier said than done. But this got me thinking, what else should I get fired for? Or what else would/should our partners/grantees fire us or other funders for if they could…? Probably the litany of bad philanthropic practises out there.

Confession time… Over the past few months I made some classic mistakes: Over communicated enthusiasm, jumped the gun in suggesting a meeting, and confused someone over our investment criteria. This past week I made a different one: Under communicated on a no (almost unavoidably, because sometimes it’s a million tiny things rather than 3 distinct reasons you can put in a bulleted list).

I think with this latter mistake I perhaps compensated slightly by a offering a follow up call which they took me up on -but you’d probably have to ask them if that helped or not.

And on the other stuff… It is really hard not to communicate personal enthusiasm for an idea when you think it’s the best thing since sliced bread, but your not sure if it’s not a fit for the fdn. And really hard to communicate a ‘no’. And really hard to be crystal clear about a criteria when you’re actually still developing it.

These are not excuses to hide behind. I suppose my point is to simply say, it can be tricky. And we take those tricky things seriously and take time to try our best to get them as right as we know how. There are absolutely some things we can learn from advice/research/peers. Yet, with many of the really important lessons, I’m not sure how a young foundation can figure these things out unless we are trying, sometimes failing, and hopefully quickly iterating to find a good solution. The ideal being: ‘Only make new mistakes’.

We’re still learning. There are still a lot of perhaps unavoidable mistakes that are new for me/us. And so I’m still getting some things wrong. I apologise if you’re ever on the receiving end of a ‘learning moment’. Kevin Starr, please don’t fire me yet…

Someone Else Implementing a Brilliant Idea

By Jessamyn Lau

A few weeks ago I wrote about VisionSpring’s funder reporting process. The week after the post went up I received an email from a manager at an organisation that was just about to make a similar shift. They wanted to movefrom reporting individually to each of their funders -according to the reporting frameworks each of those funders required, to creating one dashboard of the organisation’s own metrics, inviting all their funders to take part in one reporting discussion. For more on the process see my previous post.

We realise that this is not a small decision, and a scary leap to take. I asked the org if they would mind sharing this journey, their motivation, trepidation, hurdles and hopefully success. Here is part one, as they begin this transition:

“As a small nonprofit, we often feel like we are beholden to the whims and vagaries of our funders and partners. This usually means that we conform to their reporting schedules and geographic and programmatic preferences, but oftentimes it signals a positive, and leads us to new opportunities, or affords us the chance to look at our work from a different, but equally meaningful, perspective. We are pleased to have been able to work with outside experts in monitoring and evaluating our programs, but in all honesty can also feel a little schizophrenic when working with some funders who exact strict and demanding reporting of us, while others sign over grant monies without so much as a follow-up email.

We decided, as an experiment, to take matters into our own hands (inspired in part by the Peery Foundation blog post on nonprofits’ self-reporting activities): in addition to the donor-mandated reporting for one of our larger programs, we developed a presentation that we plan on updating quarterly, sharing with all of the supporters - both financial and otherwise - of the program. In fact, we plan on opening it up to anyone interested in our work, and will hold quarterly conference calls in which we review the presentation, answer questions and - most importantly - respond to many queries all at once. This will mean a tremendous time saver for us, and hopefully will instill confidence in our network of supporters, both in our ability to do our work well and in our belief in evaluating ourselves on an ongoing basis. We’ll see how it goes…”

I’ll be checking in with them again in a couple of months to see what pleasant or challenging surprises this process brings.

We’d love to hear from you if you’re in a similar position. What difficulties are you facing? What benefits are you reaping?

A Peery Foundation Mohawk

By Jessamyn Lau

A little while ago I developed the analogy of ‘getting a Mohawk’. In a past life I actually had a mohawk, so figured I was qualified enough to define it as: a decision that is risky, but not permanent, and helps you become more of who/what you want to be.

We are a young foundation. Small. Learning. Still admittedly getting some things wrong. But with aspirations to be better. Mostly we’re trying to figure out who and what we are as an organisation, and how we are uniquely situated to be most effective in our support.

On a fairly regular basis we get a mohawk. We make decisions and try things out that involve risk, but that aren’t irreversible. Things that help us figure out what we are and how we best operate. Sometimes we talk about big mohawks with spikes and colours, and then realise they aren’t right for the moment. We don’t go through with all of them. Mostly we get small mohawks. But it is this openness to experimentation and thoughtful iteration that makes the PF an exciting, and potentially more effective, organisation to work within.

One small current mohawk: This year we’re going to have a social entrepreneur check-in with our social entrepreneurs. Sounds strange? Let me explain.

With each of our partners we aim to have quarterly or semi annual check-ins. We discuss how they are doing with their milestones, what their current challenges are, and find out if and how we can further help them. Neither Dave nor I will be the primary contact for check-ins with the PF for our Global Portfolio partners in 2011. Instead the check-ins will be with one of their own; a social entrepreneur.

One of our partners and advisors, Martin Burt (founder of Fundacion Paraguaya), has been working with us on our international due diligence, providing deeper insights in to the challenges and opportunities of global models. This year as we are not anticipating growing our Global Portfolio, and so not having international due diligence to perform, Martin has agreed to act as our quasi international program officer. He has a strong grounding in the PF’s process and networks as we’ve worked with him over a number of years in various capacities, and he performed due diligence on many of our current portfolio members, so already has a good grounding in many of their organisations. We’re hoping that our partners will feel even more comfortable talking through issues with him -as a peer practitioner- but also that he will be able to give them more useful advice and support as they discuss issues that he may have come up against and worked through himself at some point.

There are risks associated with trying this. Concerns we’ve already thought about are issues of continuity, effective communication through another layer of conversations, capturing and sharing Martin’s insights, etc. We’re still fine tuning how exactly it will work. Dave and I will not be stepping back completely from the Global portfolio, and we need to figure out how each of our partners sees something like this working for them. Some may opt out.

At the end of the day if it doesn’t work, it’s not a permanent decision. But we hope this mohawk will help us continue to learn. That’s how we’ll find a better way to do things and the best way for us to support our partners.

Crowd Sourced Annual Review

By Jessamyn Lau

As you probably know, we are a small shop and both relatively new to foundation work. There are many advantages to this situation. There are a few downsides too.

One downside is that it’s harder to get regular feedback from different perspectives on how I’m doing as a developing foundation professional. So I want to attempt to crowd source my own annual review. I’m hoping this will provide feedback on a variety of the roles I find myself playing, from all different angles.

If we worked together, interacted or you’ve observed me working at a conference, event, etc during 2010, I’d like to hear from you. The only stipulation is that you provide at least one thing I should keep doing that you saw in 2010 and one thing you suggest I should work on/try in 2011. Please feel free to leave your feedback in the comments section, or if you’re more comfortable emailing them then send to jessamynATpeeryfoundationDOTorg.

Many thanks, in anticipation of you taking time to do this. It will be a great way for me to figure out what I can work on during 2011 to be better at what we do.